December 23, 2012
Dear Friends of St. Albert’s,
When I last wrote, the squirrels and I were wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving, and I was looking forward (somewhat reluctantly) to turning sixty-six and surrendering to the inescapable truth of my senior citizenship. I must confess the latter event turned out less painful, and more interesting than I expected. My folks sent me a card that showed a man trying to jog down the sidewalk. He was muttering, “Oh, my back!” “Ow, my neck!” “Ouch, my knee!” Inside, it asked, “Remember when life was just a pain in the rear?”
Then I paid a visit to the local pharmacy, to fetch a prescription, and inquired about a flu shot. The pharmacist asked my age and, when I divulged it, told me I qualified for the “super economy sized” helping of the flu vaccine the Center for Disease Control has developed for us older folks. So far, it seems to be working.
I’ve read the biographies of many saints, and know they often experienced visions in the night. They frequently said they did not count these among the most pleasant moments of their lives, so I would never think of complaining because my birthday was not punctuated by something so extraordinary. However, I think the forces that govern these things might have managed better than to arrange a dream, just before I woke the morning of my birthday, in which someone asked, “If Lebanon were to lose its capitol and a visitor to St. Albert’s to lose his map of this area, what would the two have in common?”
When I said, “I don’t know,” my questioner replied both would be “Bay-route-less.” I leave My Reader to imagine how little I thought the dreams of my Old Age would be darkened by such witless pun-ishment.
Thanksgiving was a very pleasant day, although I was not altogether pleased with the dressing I volunteered to prepare. Everyone else seemed happy, so I kept my misgivings to myself and hid everything under a little extra gravy. I told you that turkey isn’t my favorite flavor, so I was delighted to have invited a friend, who ate my second helping – and had a couple of turkey sandwiches for lunch on Saturday. Father LaSalle’s cranberry sauce was a triumph, and my visitor brought some cookies so good the squirrels were standing at the doors of our common room (where we enjoyed our evening’s dessert) noses and paws pressed to the glass, drooling with envy.
With the dawn of a very wet and chilly Advent, my furry friends have withdrawn to whatever warmer and drier places they retire to at this time of year. I can’t say I blame them. Warming a place as large as St. Albert’s is a costly undertaking, so we are rather sparing with the heat, keeping the temperature low during the day. I spend most of my time writing at my desk, so when the squirrels (or my fellow Dominicans) peer into my room, they usually find me with a dark blue crocheted blanket tossed over my shoulders – looking a great deal like some crouched character from a novel by Dickens. Although the blanket is handsomely designed, the overall “look” won’t win me any fashion awards. Nevertheless, it makes the chilly days a great deal more pleasant, and I don’t envy the squirrels their fur coats quite so much as I might.
Am I imagining this, or has Advent 2012 been the busiest in recent memory? Perhaps the reason is the brevity of the season this year – the last “week” of this Advent is only a day long – so we have had to squeeze a great deal of activity into fewer days. Whatever the case, my Dominican brothers and I have been racing about, lending ears at penance services from one end of the Bay Area to another. One day I attended two, one in Benicia, the other at Mission San Jose. The following day I paid a visit to the cloistered Dominican nuns in Menlo Park, allowing me to stick pins all over my “Bay-route map.”
Our friends may not realize how much assistance St. Albert’s lends, or the distance we travel to lend it. I say “we” although I am the least active member of the community, not only because I hate to drive, but because I want to stay home to keep an eye on things – and to greet you when you join us for prayers. My brothers, however, “help out” all over the neighborhood. I hesitate to get too specific, because I know I’ll forget something, but members of our community help with Marriage Preparation and other sacramental programs for the Diocese of Oakland, high school activities here and in San Francisco (Fr. LaSalle is chaplain at De LaSalle in Concord), Masses in Palo Alto, for a Carmelite monastery near Moraga, and for retired and infirm Dominican sisters in San Rafael. I even bestirred myself last week to make the drive to Sacramento, to give a Day of Recollection to the Dominican Laity.
In what promises to be a first for the Western Province, Fr. Augustine Thompson’s biography of St. Francis appears set to be reviewed in The New Yorker. You didn’t know Fr. Augustine had written a biography of St. Francis? I’m sorry I didn’t share the information sooner, so you could have given the book as a Christmas gift. The volume, St. Francis of Assisi, A Critical Life, is a splendid work, and it has gotten magnificent reviews in journals across a wide spectrum of readership. The book is available at all the usual outlets – or you can support Dominican enterprise and purchase it on-line from the Western Province’s Rosary Center.
Last evening was a very special occasion for us. Our students joined members of WAVE (Women’s Antique Vocal Ensemble) to offer an evening of Lessons and Carols. The lessons began with the Book of Genesis’ relating the Fall of our Frist Parents, and traced God’s mercy through the call of Abraham to the birth of Jesus. The carols were chosen from among new and old collections of hymns, and we were all invited to close the event by joining in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
Aside from my birthday – and Jesus’, of course – December holds another day that is very nearly my favorite of the year. This is the Feast of St. Lucy, on December 13. We are all familiar with the Twelve Days of Christmas that begin on December 25th and end on January 6th. What may be less familiar are the twelve days of Christmas that begin on December 13th and end on December 25th. What unites the two are celebrations of light. On January 6th we celebrate the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, to offer their homage to the Light of Light, Our Savior. On December 13th we celebrate the feast of St. Lucy, whose name means “light.”
Okay, we may ask, aside from proving he can count to twelve without taking off his shoes, why is the Prior of St. Albert’s so excited about these two Twelve Days of Christmas? The answer is quite simple. On December 12th (in Oakland, at least) the sun went down at 4:50. The next day, on the Feast of St. Lucy, it went down at 4:51. On January 6th the sun will begin coming up a minute earlier in the morning, but as far as I’m concerned – and as far as the elderly Dominican who taught me my astronomy was concerned – winter is over.
Thomas Merton, I’ve heard, wrote that the greatest ill wrought by the 20th Century was the invention of the electric light, because it allows us to turn our back on the natural cycles of day and night, and – arrogantly, with the touch of a finger – imitate God’s work on the first day of creation. I am reluctant to challenge the spiritual masters, but I remember one day when I was assigned to our Dominican parish in Anchorage. I had earlier decided I must at least take a walk every day if I were to get any exercise during the winter, so I had set out on my afternoon jaunt. As usual, I’d ended up at the bookstore about half a mile from our house.
I was wandering around the store, looking at things on the shelves, when the lights went out. We had power failures all the time in those days, so no one got excited; we simply stood there, in the dark, and waited for the lights to come back on. Only they didn’t. Finally, someone from the bookstore told us we would have to leave, so we all filed out and made our ways home. It was no more than three-thirty in the afternoon, but it was as dark as midnight. And the landscape I passed as I made my way home was an entirely different place than the one I’d traveled half an hour or so earlier, when I’d had street lights and lights from windows to guide me. All of a sudden, alleyways – even doorways – that I passed every day were sinister and frightening.
We think of light as something that makes our world bright and warm, but it also makes it safe. Physicists tell us what light is, but we don’t need to be scientists to know what light does. When Jesus took on our flesh, Light invaded the darkness of our world, and transformed the gloomy, mouldy stuff of our humanity. Then he offered it up on the cross, so that we needn’t ever fear the dark again.
In two days we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Light of the World. Each of us at St. Albert’s offers deeps thanks for your being such immensely powerful signs of that light in our lives; I pray that we may reflect Christ’s light to you, so that together we may be signs of His warmth, love and hope to the world.
Each of us at St. Albert’s will remember you in our prayers on Christmas Day, and throughout the Christmas season. I beg you to pray for us, especially the young men in our community who are the future of the Western Dominican Province – and the elderly brothers in our midst who have served our Province so faithfully and for so long.
The squirrels and I wish you every blessing at Christmas, and we look forward to continuing our Pilgrimage of Faith with you in 2013. Thank you for pledging to be a part of our – bright – future at St. Albert’s!
Sincerely, in Christ,
--Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.